From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As many a celebrity victim knows, David Letterman is not always the most gracious talk show host. But when Larry King visited the late-night star one night in the early '90s, the prickly comedian gave the CNN interviewer his undivided attention. King, 66, had undergone bypass surgery in 1987 following a heart attack, "so I described the whole thing to Dave" on the air, he recalls. "The name of the doctor, how the surgery went—he was hanging on every word! I said, 'Now you wished this had happened to you, don't you?' He laughed."

Nervously, no doubt. King's riff on going under the knife was a direct hit on one of the tightly wound comic's panic buttons—the one wired to his heart. The Late Show host's father had died of a heart attack at age 57. Knowing that heredity put him at risk despite a rigorously healthy lifestyle, the talk show host, now 52, was dreading the day doctors might have to repair his own ticker. That day arrived Friday, Jan. 14, when Letterman reported to the New York Weill Cornell Center of Manhattan's New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He had been scheduled to take an angiogram—a test in which X-rays detect obstructions in the coronary arteries—after a recent stress test on a treadmill had picked up an irregularity. Even though Letterman had jogged six miles the day before the angiogram, it was only hours after his test that, having found evidence of one clogged artery, a team that included cardiothoracic surgeon O. Wayne Isom, 59, recommended bypass surgery.

Given that 500,000 Americans die of heart disease each year, Letterman saw no reason to postpone the operation. Besides, says Dr. Nicholas Smedira, who isn't treating Letterman but is a cardiac surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, a renowned medical facility, "it may actually be better" to go straight into surgery: "You don't have time to worry." By the afternoon, Letterman was under the knife of Isom—the heart expert who had performed the bypass not only on King but on former Tonight host Jack Paar and CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. Before being anesthetized, Letterman—in "good spirits," says his surgeon—even joked with the doctor about his showbiz clientele.

Letterman was in expert hands, says Cronkite, 83, who had popped up on Letterman's show earlier in the week for Hillary Clinton's highly anticipated appearance. Cronkite describes Isom as "a superb surgeon: very attentive, very thorough in explaining to the patient precisely what's going on." The prognosis for Letterman is excellent, Isom says. Post-op, the surgeon described the star's heart as being as sound as a 20-year-old's. Barring any setbacks, Letterman was due to be released from the hospital by week's end, sufficiently recuperated to return to his large converted-barn home in New Canaan, Conn. He could possibly be back on his beloved soundstage at Manhattan's Ed Sullivan Theater within six to eight weeks. (For now, CBS says it will stick with Late Show repeats.) "From what we hear," says one Late Show staffer, "we'll be back by Valentine's Day. There's no way they can hold him down."

Those who saw Letterman in the hospital made it sound as if he were already up for everything short of stupid human tricks. The day after the surgery, he felt alert enough to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars trounce the Miami Dolphins in an AFC divisional play-off game on television. By Monday the relentless workaholic, who had never missed a day due to sickness in his 18 years in late-night, first with NBC and then CBS, was already taking steps in the corridors of the hospital. He'd had calls from the President and Vice President, in addition to a personal note from the First Lady. And he had get-well messages from many celebrities volunteering to be the first guest on his return show. The hospital switchboard was flooded by calls from well-wishers (CBS counted 300 to the network), and so many bouquets arrived that Letterman asked that they be distributed to other patients. Unable to reach Letterman personally, former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, who underwent a quadruple bypass last March, left a message: "Tell Dave I've been there and to drink a lot of red wine," which, taken moderately, may reduce the threat of heart attack.

By then, Letterman himself was trying out jokes on the nurses. "What have you done?" he said to one. "I was supposed to come in for cosmetic surgery!" Such humor, says Isom, "is an indication that he is doing well and getting back to his old self."

Now, of course, it's safe—or safer—to laugh a little. Many of Letterman's Late Show staff shed tears of relief when they were informed by producer Rob Burnett at a Friday afternoon meeting that their boss had successfully come through heart surgery. "I have been on the show for 14 years," says Letterman's hairdresser Michael DiCesare, "and [the operation] took me by complete surprise."

If anything, in the days before the bypass the often dour host seemed crackling with energy. After Letterman spent weeks baiting Hillary Clinton for avoiding his show, the would-be New York senator at last relented. Her appearance on Jan. 12, in which she offered a well-scripted Top 10 list, earned the show its best ratings in six years—the strongest performance yet in the program's slow emergence from the ratings dominance of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "He had a triumph," says New York Times television reporter Bill Carter, author of The Late Shift, the 1994 bestselling book about the Leno-Letterman wars, "a spectacular success." At the taping, Letterman "seemed in quite good spirits," says Cronkite, who warned Letterman not to be "a jackass" with Clinton. "He seemed fine. I didn't detect any problems."

But Letterman sensed otherwise. He hinted at potential trouble two nights later with guest Regis Philbin. "As we were in between segments leading into the commercial, he did say he wanted to talk to me about something personal," says Philbin, not only a former heart patient but a spokesman for the American Heart Association. "I didn't know what it was, but I had an inkling." Once back on-camera, Letterman joked that his cholesterol level was "borderline—around 680." (That's three times the acceptable level. His doctors refused to reveal his true count.) He also asked Philbin what he should expect from the angiogram he'd be having in the morning. Philbin described the procedure in such detail that Letterman winced. "He was concerned," says Philbin, "and you rarely see him concerned about anything."

By now, Letterman knows all he will probably ever want to know about the bypass procedure, which is performed annually on roughly 600,000 patients, with a risk of death of less than 1 percent in nonemergency cases, such as Letterman's. In his operation, a vein or an artery was likely snipped from elsewhere in his body and attached to the heart area, where it was used to let blood flow past the obstructed vessel in five different spots. Explains Isom: "If the Long Island Expressway was blocked at Exit 30, you'd get off at Exit 29, take a side road and then get back on at Exit 31. That's essentially what you're doing." Although "quintuple" sounds more alarming than "quadruple," the number isn't important. What matters is how damaged the heart is—and Letterman's heart muscle was excellent. In roughly six weeks he'll probably be tested again on a treadmill, to make sure the grafts have held up. If they have, he can expect to be reexamined in another six months. The survival rate after five years is an encouraging 88 percent.

In fact the operation, says Cleveland Clinic's Smedira, may have been the easy part. "The rest is a lot of hard work on the part of the patient"—including exercise and a low-fat, largely vegetarian diet. But how much healthier could Letterman be? Surely a physician couldn't ask for a more conscientious patient. As a boy in Indianapolis, where he grew up with two sisters—Gretchen, 44, now a newspaper editor with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, and Janice, 56, a homemaker in Carmel, Ind.—he may have loved scarfing down the fat-laden dishes his mother, Dorothy, now 78, lovingly prepared for him: fried bologna sandwiches, creamed chipped beef on Tater Tots. But he has been on a low-fat, high-fiber diet for more than five years and lost some 30 lbs. He typically eats only one large meal a day, usually pasta at lunch, with fruit later in the day. When he stops in at the Hello Deli, close to his studio at the Ed Sullivan Theater, "he eats a lot of salads," says owner and Late Show fixture Rupert Jee. He is also known to have studied all the medical literature he could find about heart health. And in New Canaan, reports a neighbor, Letterman can be seen jogging "miles and miles on a regular basis" through the challenging hills.

If he has any known vice, it would be the chocolate bars that give him a sugar boost before each taping. Although Letterman chomping on a big stogie is a familiar sight, lighting up now will be a definite no-no. As Larry King notes, "If you have a family history of heart disease and you smoke, you're an idiot."

Indeed, the genetic propensity for heart disease still casts—and may always cast—an ominous shadow over Letterman's day-to-day existence. His father, Joe, a florist, died suddenly in 1973 when Dave, working at an Indianapolis TV station, was 25. Like his son, he was funny, gap-toothed—and very, very worried about his work. Letterman's concern is to keep the comparison from growing any stronger than that. "If you have a patient who has a mother or father who had coronary disease at an early age or had a heart attack, you worry about that patient," says Isom. In fact, he explains, genetics plays such a significant role that anyone who has a parent who had heart disease, even if he or she exercises regularly and maintains a low cholesterol level, remains at risk of developing heart disease.

In other words, Letterman is understandably fanatical—and anxious. After his boyhood friend Jeff Eshowsky, 52, an Indianapolis construction-company owner, had quadruple bypass surgery in 1998, Letterman called to wish him a fast recovery—and to ask the same sort of questions that peppered his interviews with Larry King and Regis Philbin. "I was the first one of our group of guys to have those kinds of problems," says Eshowsky. "And I think it scared him, quite honestly. He asked me what happened and why it happened and what it felt like. I asked him if it was scaring him, and he said, 'Well, kind of.' "

But then, as the world knows, Letterman is a full-blooded type A who seems never to give his heart a breather. He may have a personal life—married to Michelle Cook for eight years until they divorced in 1977, he has been with girlfriend Regina Lasko, 40, a TV production manager, since the late '80s—but the show has always been the center of his universe. He's known to watch tapes of each night's performance and mercilessly critique himself. "The guy works with such astounding intensity," says an actor who appeared on the show last year. "He needs to learn to relax."

That may be the wrong prescription for a man as observed as David Letterman. Indeed, in my own experience," says Isom, "I think if you take an individual who's type A and tell them to retire or not do anything, it's just as detrimental." Instead of following Johnny Carson into a sunny, relaxed retirement, the best thing for Letterman may well be to get back before the cameras and find new victims to skewer. Comedian Tom Dreesen, a friend since 1975, wishes Letterman would take up meditation or golf, or even bring in a guest host. "If you're trying to lower your cholesterol, do a talk show every night and drive in from Connecticut every day," he says, "it's going to add to the stress." But when all is said and done, he admits, "Dave is only happy when he's working."

Tom Gliatto
Fannie Weinstein, Joseph V. Tirella, Liz McNeil, Matt Birkbeck, Cynthia Wang, Kathleen A. Kelly and Joanne Fowler in New York City, Debbie Seaman in Connecticut, Kelly Williams, Mary Green and Giovanna Breu in Chicago, Jane Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Lorenzo Benet and Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Joseph V. Tirella,
  • Liz McNeil,
  • Matt Birkbeck,
  • Cynthia Wang,
  • Kathleen A. Kelly,
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Debbie Seaman,
  • Kelly Williams,
  • Mary Green,
  • Giovanna Breu,
  • Jane Podesta,
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Alison Singh Gee.